Peter Pan Economics

Article excerpt

When Julia Gillard says she believes in economic reform it sounds as if she is playing Peter Pan in a pantomime.

"Quick, children!" Peter cries. "If we don't all shout out ?I believe in fairies' Tinker Bell will die."

The Prime Minister seems to believe if she doesn't talk about reform something similar will happen to the market and the Australian and United States currencies will never again reach parity.

But despite all her words hopes for any genuine economic reform this year are off in never-never land.

What the Prime Minister describes as reform and what the term is generally understood to mean are two separate things. Wasting $40-odd billion on a technological white elephant is not reform. Nor is bumping up power bills.

The makeup of the parliament is scarcely conducive to the passage of any legislation likely to cause even the slightest short-term smart of pain.

And those of us who believe in reform have failed to put our case clearly.

Despite its importance economic reform is not an end it itself. It is a means, the means of ensuring greater prosperity.

That seems to have been forgotten in the two decades since Bob Hawke sacked Peter Walsh from the ministry, Paul Keating embraced the types he once dismissed as basket weavers from Balmain and Labor lost its reform zeal.

This trio floated the dollar, ended tariff protection and trimmed down the size of government for the most Labor of reasons: to ensure greater equality. Only a strong economy, they correctly reasoned, could deliver their goal.

If advocates of economic reform today are seen as Scrooges obsessing over dollars and cents rather than statesmen stressing just what can be built on a strong bottom line, it is only because we have talked too much of reform itself rather than the benefits it brings.

Labor still knows reform matters, so it labels some of its sillier policies as reforms. Discussion of what can be done to further streamline the economy gets lost in the subsequent politicking.

That politicking also obscures the fact that the great reforms of the 1980s were a joint effort. They were proposed by a Labor government, but they were largely passed into law thanks to the support of the Coalition opposition in the Senate. That is even more important now.

The Gillard government has only stayed in power thanks to three country independents, Hobart independent Andrew Wilkie and a Green. None appear to have any real commitment to economic reform. …